27 and a PhD

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Gift-giving for the newly minted PhD

A couple of days ago I got a very interesting question in one of my posts as to what would be an appropriate gift for a newly minted PhD. That got me thinking that, since not many people close to us (family, non grad school friends) may be in the academic realm, they are probably scratching their heads as to how to show appreciation during this momentous occasion. Thus, here’s a little post intended for our family and friends … in case they’re inclined to share their happiness and pride with a little something.

Now, a PhD is a big, big thing. We’ve spent years slaving away in the library and/or the lab, or field, or underwater, or wherever. We’ve grown a lot and have faced some of the most challenging times ever. Thus, it’s a wonderful time to celebrate the good times, and drink a bit to drown the sorrows. But, as a family member or friend, what would be an appropriate gift to give, if you’re feeling like giving something?

Here are some ideas, accompanied by the rationale behind them (in no particular order):

  1. Money – I know, it sounds like an easy way out, but trust me, ask any grad student (besides your grad student) or postdoc and they will gladly admit that they’re broke. So money is a safe bet, and totally appropriate, I’d say. Think about it, your grad may be moving across the country, or the pond, as it is they have to get rid of a lot of things, and they’re broke (have I stressed this enough). A little bit of money will be greatly appreciated, it doesn’t take much space, it’s not insulting (IMO), and will be put to good use. The amount … it really doesn’t matter, as long as you’re comfortable with what you’re giving. It doesn’t have to be a lot, it’s the thought that counts.
  2. Good food – again, this goes back to the fact that a lot of people are broke by the time their defense rolls in. And chances are they’ve been doing the ramen noodle and coffee diet for a long, long time, thus, a good, real, wholesome meal will be greatly appreciated. It doesn’t have to be a really big fancy restaurant, as long as it’s good and comes from the heart. If you’re so inclined, feel free to invite them over to your place, or if you’re far away, take your graduate during their next visit to town. It’s thoughtful and gives you the time to share and celebrate with your graduate.
  3. Jewelry – a new watch, a nice pair of earrings, maybe something engraved. It will for sure make your graduate feel special. One of my grad school’s BFFs got a cute pair of diamond earrings from her husband to wear during the defense. They were a nice touch to her outfit and it gave her a bit of a boost too.
  4. Help – chances are the grad will be relocating, they will need help moving, boxing stuff, throwing away most of their Ikea furniture. Volunteering your time to help the grad will be greatly appreciated.
  5. Some sort of spa treatment – again, this goes back to grad student’s being broke. So, if you can or are so inclined, maybe a 30-minute massage for a stressed body, or a hair cut are a good salon, or a mani/pedi, or something similar. The grad will feel very pampered after it, and will thank you for years to come.
  6. A gift card – if giving moolah straight out sounds a little eefy, then maybe a gift card to their favourite store, or electronics place makes you more comfortable. Again, the amount is up to you. But to give you an idea, in my family, gifts ranged from 100-200$.
  7. Something electronic – a tablet, a smartphone, a fancy set of earphones, a portable gaming system, an e-reader. Whatever it is, it doesn’t have to be too expensive, maybe their iPod is falling apart, or maybe they’d like to eventually read something not so sciency … again, maybe a gift card for any of the above electronics is a good idea.
  8. A fancy piece of clothing – chances are, your graduate has been wearing the same jeans for 3 years non-stop. They may have a new job lined up, or they’ll be going on interviews. Maybe a nice shirt, or a new pair of (non-athletic, non flip-flop) shoes is in order.
  9. A vacation – my in-laws helped a bit to get me and hon to Spain two years ago, after my graduation. If you’re so inclined, and can do it, maybe the whole family or set of friends can pool money to send the grad on a short trip away from all-things grad school related.
  10. Booze – or the grad’s favourite drink. The grad will need some booze to celebrate (or drown their sorrows), so feel free to sponsor a night out, or get a bottle of something (or a nice bag of coffee, a fancy tea, ice-cream for our Mormon crowd).

Hope this helps. Feel free to add or ask anything I may have forgotten. And congrats!!!!

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And we’re back

After a crazy, lovely and #winning weekend, I’m back. And hon is back at home. As you know, we’re back in this long-distance thing. It’s not easy, especially after sharing living quarters for the 2 years I was a postdoc. I’m already looking for the next time we see each other. Hopefully in the next few months we’ll be seeing a bit more of each other. Seeing him was amazing, and sharing this special thesis-defense occasion was awesome.

I remember my own defense, and how he was my biggest cheerleader, and how we embraced and kissed after I passed. The same thing happened in his defense. So much emotion, and happy feelings. He has a few corrections, but nothing too terrible or time consuming. We ate, and drank and we’re merry while we celebrated his triumph. Now he can focus on the job search.

It was also a small break away from the usual crazy/busy stuff in the lab. I didn’t have my phone on, and I only tweeted a bit here and there from the hotel room. I didn’t even check my work email until we were back in the States. We went to one of our favourite places to have dinner the day before his defense, and I got some great tea, and the usual soap I get every time I go back. I also stopped by my postdoc lab to say hello. Some things have changed, but a lot of the people who were in the lab while I was there are still present. I’ll probably write an entry on that experience soon enough.

For now, I have to catch up on my emails, do some of the usual things I do at work, and deal with some rather craptastic unfinished stuff in my neighbourhood. It was good to be back in Canada and in familiar territory, and it was weird to be in a car, and drive around, and not have to worry about alternate side crap, and people honking their horn, and the usual city buzz. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy I’m in the city, but there are definitely elements of suburbia I miss. In fact, I think I’m equally happy in either environment, I guess it’s more of the type of work I do and how happy that makes me.

Post thesis defense gift-giving

So, yesterday night hon and I talking as we usually do at the end of the day, when he mentions that before he goes to the airport for his defense (this week!!! THIS WEEK PEOPLE!!!) he’s going to pick up some gifts for his examination committee. We’re in different disciplines and the make up of his examination committee is totally different from mine. In grad school, my committee was comprised of local members only. I had to have a certain amount of PIs from within the department and I could have however many from departments other than mine. I gave a 1hr lecture, and immediately after that, I had a 1.5hr-long examination. My committee signed the first page of my thesis (with the condition that my PI checked that I follow their comments and include their corrections) and besides the after party, that was the last time I saw most of them (except one of two at graduation the following year).

Hon’s thesis committee is almost completely different from that of his qualifying exam, and the one he’s had for the last couple of years in preparation for his defense. Two of his usual members are part of the examination committee, a third member from the faculty and a fourth from within the university are there, along with a totally external one, a complete stranger from another uni.

We got into a tiny argument about how “rude” it was of me not to get my committee, which had been with me for 3 years, a gift, as a token of appreciation for taking time out of their busy schedules to attend my defense. I was a bit shocked, and thought that I hadn’t heard anyone, especially from my lab, do that. It’s not that I think it’s wrong, I just wasn’t aware of it, nor did I receive any indication of it. Besides, as rude as it is of me to say this, that’s part of their jobs, no? He asked what my mom had said about not giving any gifts, and I answered nothing, since my mom is always all proper and very Ms. Manners. My mom said nothing about not getting gifts, though I think she may have brought my PI some sweets my mom knew my PI loved.

The whole conversation got me thinking about gift-giving after the defense. My boss paid for her own copy of the thesis, and I placed the order, and printed all the pages to be bound. She also covered the after party and invited us over to her place for a little celebration the following weekend. No one else from my committee requested copies, so I didn’t offer any. My thesis has been freely available for the last 2.5 years. I presented in my department every time I was required (2x a year) and even volunteered to present in the lab of one of my committee members. I did send my PhD mentor a very thoughtful thank you note, which she didn’t acknowledge (maybe she didn’t get it), which is very rare, as she’s always very proper and thoughtful. She did get me another small treat for graduation, but to me, the most important point was that she was there for the hooding ceremony.

So, I have a little poll. Feel free to answer below, or tweet. I’d love to hear your thoughts:

Almost 9 months

Oh my, I’ve been at work for almost 9 months. Incredible. I’d secretly given myself 6 months to try and see if I liked being back in my field of training. Thus far I have. Being a staff scientist has its challenges (and rewards). I’ve been to at least 3 local conferences/workshops. I’ve made contacts, I’ve helped people. I’ve battled with an intense boss. I got a raise. I’ve been trying to be good to myself.

I finally tended to my feet and went to the podiatrist. But he’s a douche, so I’m switching. Been waiting for my orthotics which have magically disappeared (or were sent to a different doctor/office/patient). On Monday I have (what I hope to be) my last call with them. I already made an appointment with another doctor. I’ll be asking for a refund for services not rendered (though I honestly feel like calling a lawyer instead … if only I had that much money). I’m practicing assertiveness …. let’s see if I can get out of this and get my money back (into my FSA account anyway).

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Question via Twitter

Lovely @GilleighD asked on Twitter how did I choose the topic of study for my PhD. I don’t think I’ve covered this before, and it is a very interesting question, so here it goes.

Choosing what to study during my PhD was a multi-factorial decision. I’ll start by saying that I went into a school with a broad program, which didn’t “force” students to choose a lab or department right away. After doing rotations in a couple of departments I chose a department and lab I felt comfortable in. I’d met my PhD mentor during a departmental open house in my first few weeks in school, and while chatting with the PI and a lab member (and later friend) I noticed that their area of research and the tools they employed were very interesting. I’d learned a bit about the critter I ended up studying while I was a sophomore in college and couldn’t believe that it was there, staring at me in the face begging to be studied. I also liked the approach they were using, having just learned about it the previous summer.

So, the critter I knew from two years before, the technique a year after that. I found about these two things while doing research for a class and later for a summer project. I felt incredibly lucky that, even without really any intension, I sort of stumbled upon my future lab and science love. I think it was a combination of finding two things I liked, which drove me to choose a lab where I could learn about the topic and approach in more detail.

Later, when I joined the lab my boss talked about the different projects that were going on and what each person was doing. There were 3 major areas of research and I wasn’t really interested in the first one, at least enough to commit several years of effort to study it (plus, another student who had started the year before was actively working on it, so I didn’t want to step on his toes). The second project, now that I think about it, though interesting, was bound to die in a couple of years. Eventually someone solved the structure of it and the project was put on hold indefinitely. The third project, and a big focus of the lab, had been my PI’s thesis topic and now someone else (the student I talked to at the open house), was actively pursuing it. The boss made it clear that there was enough material for several thesis projects and that I wouldn’t be stepping on anyone’s toes. I chose that one, and I ended up in 4 or 5 publications in one way or the other.

Originally I was set to study a “subset” of the main project, and not the whole system. But, the project was really hard and I was just learning the technique, so the boss asked me to help the senior grad student in the lab and learn how this person worked on the whole system. I picked up really quickly and eventually what was set to be this person’s second thesis project was passed on to me (all friendly, as this student was set to defend). That project opened up the door for a couple more projects, all related to the biology of the system (if you would, though this is not technically 100% correct, as I wasn’t doing any molecular bio or biochemistry on the system) and towards the end of my time in grad school I’d woven a story about how a particular critter behaves. It’s a very interesting project and along the way I taught another student how to set things up and do a project of his own, along with providing enough starting material so that a new generation could take over.

To summarize, a critter and approach I’d learned while I was an undergrad were staring at me while talking to a PI and student, then I chose the topic I thought was “hot” in the lab (which it was/is), started a somewhat related project which wasn’t working, then switched to the “main” area and ended up setting a beautiful story as time went on. The perfect combination of topic and technique were what drove me to decide. I’d say, find a topic or technique you like, study the prospects of this job (feasibility, how much you can get accomplished in however long you have in school, etc), and commit to it. BUT, if during the course of your studies you hit a wall, or see promise in something related (or totally unrelated), don’t be afraid to re-evaluate your project and its future.

Hope this provides some insight into how I chose my project. If you have any specific questions, feel free to email or tweet. I’ll be happy to talk more about this. Best of luck!

Choosing your battles and getting your PhD ASAP

We’re told from day one that we will learn a TON of skills while in grad school. These bits of knowledge come in the form of things that happen to us, or others, advice that’s passed down from one grad student generation to another, or via the PI, among others. We learn about when to talk to our boss about vacation, or ask for money to go to yet another conference this year, or what’s the best way to get that secretary or admin person to show you some mercy when you’re submitting documents for whatever even though you know she/he hates students, especially you. We also learn about where to get lunch for free almost every day of the week, and who to choose for your thesis committee (or not).

But one of the main skills we learn (or develop) is which battles we choose to fight, and which are just worth abandoning. In particular this was very helpful when I had to submit one of my papers and also when it was time to leave (though my boss was extremely supportive of me getting out ASAP, so it wasn’t like I was fighting a lost cause, it was more of getting the stupid committee together for a few hours … the bane of every grad student’s existence).

Through the years I’ve met people, at different stages of their graduate careers, who know when it’s worth doing something, and when it’s best to just leave. And I’ve tried to learn from what they’ve experienced. See, I ‘ve  never a quitter. When my 4th grade math teacher hated my guts, I could have switched teachers but did’nt. When the choir director wanted me to sign as an alto, when I’m clearly a mezzo, I kept doing the alto part, or when the boss wanted me to try a program I knew people before me had tried for months on end without a positive result, and I thought I had the magic touch, I kept at it. Luckily I gave up on this quickly (by some miracle of nature or something) and thankfully that was one of the first battles I decided not to keep fighting. This entry isn’t that much about me. It’s about how people I know have chosen to quit, or stop fighting (while in grad school) to either get their degree, whatever it is, and one who hasn’t. (more…)

How much do you want that PhD? Part Deux

The other day  I talked about a grad student I know (Grad Student X, or GSX) and how, for some unknown reason, and even though his data is all collected and analised and he’s got no funding, he still  hasn’t defended, let alone handed his thesis to his supervisor.

Today I want to go deeper into possible reasons for why this is happening, what GSX could do to be in the good graces of his boss, and get out soon … and offer my opinion on people who seem to hit the grad school wall and, in a way, avoid writing the thesis and getting out sooner rather than later.

So, yesterday I had a few questions about GSX’s situation. I’ll restate them so this enty flows more evenly:

  • If most of your data has been collected, and you should, in theory, be working on the write up, which on average takes his labmates 3 months to complete, shouldn’t most of the thesis be written by now?
  • Shouldn’t you be scheduling your defense already? The way the thesis is written up here is that any papers you have submitted and are accepted can be added as print-outs, no re-writting necessary, which shaves the time of reformatting or re-writing things so that they comply with the grad school’s format/rules. Therefore, if your thesis includes an intro, a brief materials and methods section for the computing part, and a conclusions chapter, in theory … shouldn’t that be in the final stages?
  • GSX is still a student, which means he has access to computer centres on campus, and free internet in the library, so, even if he didn’t have hydro (power) in his house (due to the loss of funding), he could potentially take the bus (which is still being covered by the grad school fees) and write up a bit every day. If these things have not happened, then, what else is going on?
  • Or why has this process taking so long? I know this sounds terrible, but it just blows my mind when I think that maybe, just maybe, you aren’t that willing to get out with your degree ASAP. I mean, come on man, we all go through rough times when it’s time to write the thesis. We have at some point or another dragged our feet when writing. If (God-forbid) something else is going on (say, a family problem or illness), why not talk to the boss and see if funding can be reinstated pending good progress on your writing? Say, a chapter every month or something similar.

All these can be summarized as follows, there is a roadblock, or mindblock, and GSX needs to get in charge of the situation so that he can a) jump start his writing and b) finish the dang thing in order to get out, get on with life and possibly make-up for the time lost with his boss.

I honestly have no clue what’s going on in this guy’s mind. I am baffled. Then again, I do not posess all the facts. I’m simply an outsider. But from experience I can tell you this: when I hit my 5th year in grad school I was SO ready for it to be over and done. I’d had it with the salary, health insurance, city, boss, labmates … everyone. It’s what I tell the grad students in my lab as having the “OMG I hate my life, why on Earth did I decide to go through grad school”-moment. Once you’ve hit that point, you know it’s time to get out. So, it baffles me to think that someone who has all the ingredients to make the thesis work, all the parts are in place, doesn’t want to or can’t do it. I mean, for heaven’s sake! you have performed every single experiment required. You’ve been to every seminar and meeting you needed to be, the boss paid you for 1 extra year to see if you could get your act together and write … and you have nothing to show? What’s the issue here? Like I said, maybe there’s something deeper that can’t be seen or understood. Maybe this guy’s depressed or has fears of being in the real world. Big secret revealed! WE ALL DO! I mean, sure, we’re pissed at the school, boss, lab, labmates,  and ourselves. But we are ready to grab life by the horns and get our stuff together and make something happen. What worries me is that if this student is in a persistent state of funk, he may not get ahead. Or like me, maybe he doesn’t know what to do with his life or career once all the brain work is done.

Here are my recommendations: reach out to your friends. GSX appears to be in a perpetual state of funk. He’s had friends drop by and check on him. But he closes the door in their faces. So, suck it up and reach out. There are peple interested in helping you. All you need to do is ask. Reach out to your boss, or some other faculty person you may be close to. We might think that bosses are out of this world creatures who’ve lost all contact with reality. Sometimes it is like that. But bosses are parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends too. Appeal to their human side, with all honesty. Say how you’re feeling. Your worries about finding a job, or switching fields. Just be honest. Your boss holds a very important card in his/her hands. That is he or she can make or break you career by making a phone call, or writing an email or letter to recommend you. Maybe you will shift careers and get away from science. But if you aren’t  then chances are you will need a letter of recommendation or two to get ahead. In this perpetual state of funk you may be burning bridges faster than you can re-build them. Hence reach out to your boss, or to someone who knows him. He/she is bound to be close to another prof who you might know and that may be a way to reach in and get your boss’s attention. If you reach out and are honest, chances are the boss will want to engage in some sort of action/plan to get you on your feet and working again. But unless you say the word … little can be done. Reach out and use the sources you have. Like I did a few weeks ago, go to the psychological centre or career service place and reach out and try to get your head and thoughts straight. What are your fears? Are they grounded? What do you think is holding you back? Talking to professionals who understand might help in developing a strategy to get you back in place and working on what your thesis. Or maybe, they’ll help you find out you may not need that PhD after all. You may want to pursue a different career and writing and defending are not in your cards. But whatever it is, reach out and talk to people. Don’t keep it bottled up. It is toxic and nasty. The sooner you overcome these feelings or funk, the sooner you can focus on your next stage.

Once you have a plan in mind, if you decide to go through with writing and defending, get on with it. Maybe you want the document to be the best thesis ever. We all want that (some may want it more than others, depending on how soon you want or need to get it done). So, try to look for a job, or set a goal, whatever it is. Find something to motivate you, have a concrete plan. Talk to the boss about it and deliver. Whether it is a new chapter a month or every two weeks. Find something that fits and stick to it. Right now you may want/need structure, so try to make a list of immediate goals to jump-start your writting. Nothing is stopping you. And since you have the example of previous students, try to aim for the same. The mind can play a ton of tricks (mine did, making me think I couldn’t possibly finish before the end of my 5th-going-into-6th year of school). Chances are, the more you talk to people, the more you’ll see the different hurdles they faced, and how they confronted them and moved on.

Find out what’s blocking you. Be honest with yourself and your boss. If this is something you want to have done by the end of the year, open the lines of communication with the boss, or chairperson and establish a plan. Go for it and trust me, it will be less painful once you’re going trough it than you envisioned.

I wonder what’s the cause of your delay. Is it family problem? Are you in need of guidance your boss can’t give you? There are postdocs and other PIs in the department who probably know you enough to lend a helping hand. What are you waiting for? Are you afraid or is it just laziness? Figure out what it is. Talk to a shrink, your family doctor, a trusted friend. Maybe you need a pep talk or someone to sit down and tell you straight to your face that the more you prolong this, the worse it looks on your resume. If you aren’t working, or consulting, or volunteering, then how are you going to explain the obvious gap in your timeline? If you want to stay in the field and go for a job with one of your boss’s collaborators, then you need to open those lines of communcation  fast. Chances are they know the turnover for peeps in your lab and when the see a gap in it there might be questions.

Finally … it maybe be that you are depressed altogether. We’ve all experienced it at some point, be it the seasonal blues, or something more serious. You’d be surprised how many people (including profs) are in some sort of medication, therapy or both. This is very important and it shouldn’t be neglected. I was very skeptic about using medication. Not that I don’t believe that they work, there’s a good body of work out there supporting some of these medications. I sought advice and got on sertraline. And OMG it did wonders. I thought it was just a behavioural problem, but it was that and much more. You may need to visit a few doctors until you find someone who listens and understands. It took me only 2 tries until I found a guy who really knew his stuff and was also into listening to me, how I felt and how serious it was. Some peeps out there are just into writing prescriptions and not listening to you. But someone who truly cares and shows concern about you and your individual situation can help steer you in the right direction. I did try several meds until I found one that was good for me. It takes a bit of effort, but it’s worth it. Seek guidance, visit your student health facility and ask for a referral to a psychiatrist or physician. It will more than likely change your life for the best, or at least, get you out of the funk.

Ultimately, whatever issue or hurdle GSX is working through, it will only be resolved when he takes the first step. I can offer insight and even offer to edit his thesis before the PI sees it … but he needs to make a decision to get out of the funk, in whichever one of the ways I’ve mentioned before, and get out. If/when I learn how GSX is coping and/or defending I’ll do another entry. I hope this serves to get some of you peeps motivated and moving toward a goal, whether it is the defense or an alternate career.